Half Life 2, currently one of the world's top selling PC video games, owes much of its success to the things Valve Corp. did right when developing and marketing the original game.
Half-Life, released in 1998, was an evolution of the technology Valve's main competitor, id Software, developed for 1996's blockbuster game Quake. Half-Life not only projected the player from Quake's sepia universe and into a world of colour and diversity, but won Valve than 50 "Game of the Year" honours.
Half-Life challenged the way games were being developed, offering a complex and interactive storyline and breaking with accepted stereotypes. Originally known as "Ivan the Space Biker," Half-Life's central character Gordon Freeman is a skinny physicist rather than a muscle-bound hero, for example.
"Gordon was always intended to be an average Joe," laughs Doug Lombardi, Valve's head of marketing. "At the time, if you were making an action game, your hero had to be buff and wear shades. Folks here thought it might be refreshing to move in the opposite direction."
A major part of Half-Life's success also sprang from the fact that it won over independent programmers who modified games to produce levels of their own. Id Software was the first to release software development kits to the "mod" community, but Valve went a step further by licensing its engine for free. Counter-Strike, a Half-Life mod, became popular with the multiplayer crowd and quickly surpassed the original game's following. Valve shrewdly adopted this third-party product and released it commercially, and with its focus on teamwork and strategy, Counter-Strike has since become the most played 3D action game on the Internet.
In terms of a blockbuster follow-up to Half Life, however, things were quiet for several years. Aside from two expansions on the original Half-Life (Opposing Force and Blue Shift), the Day of Defeat on-line WWII title, and a release of Valve's first title on the Playstation 2 console, the company's exposure waned in the gaming community.
In the meantime, id Software became the company to watch. It released the phenomenally successful Quake III: Arena, remodelling the first-person-shooter genre. Developers adopted a new approach to gaming in response to the popularity of Quake's multiplayer component. And by late 2004, id was turning heads with Doom 3's ultra-realistic graphics engine.
Then, after many delays, Valve released Half-Life 2 on Nov. 16, 2004, bringing a new feature to the table - realistic physics.
Valve's designers had envisioned a physics simulation system for Half Life, but decided it was too much for a young studio to handle at the time. As soon as the decision was made to author a new engine for Half Life 2, the team decided to give it a shot, and the gamble has paid off in the form of skyrocketing sales.
Valve also ensured that Half-Life 2 could be fully exploited by the mod community.
"Almost every technical decision was evaluated in relation to exposed and explored by the mod teams before it was approved for inclusion," Mr. Lombardi says.
It's only potential misstep was Steam, Valve's on-line distribution/update/ security software. Through this system, Half-Life 2 and many new add-ons can be found on-line, but it stirred controversy among gamers who objected to having to "unlock" their product on-line before it could be played.
But Valve survived the heat surrounding Steam, playing up its potential to update game content, and the game has gone on to make millions and garner rave reviews from players and industry critics alike.
Through Half Life 2, it seems Valve has been born again as one of the top influencers in the game development community. Time will tell...